By Sonia Chan Lee, Esq.
A common misconception by the public is that all Living Trusts and lawyers are the same. That just because you hired a law firm or legal service that offers estate planning services that you are getting the same product. Unfortunately, that's just not the case and most people do not find out until it's too late. This is typically revealed after they become disabled or pass away and the Living Trust is now put to the test. This is the reason why a lot of families and loved ones end up fighting in Court and wasting a lot of time and money, not to mention the unnecessary stress and chaos!
Your estate planning is simply not an area where you should be pennywise and pound foolish.
I recently met with a client who brought in their parents' trust that was drafted by a lawyer who claimed to have experience in this area of law. When I reviewed the trust, not only did I see a very generic financial Power of Attorney (like my other horror story I shared), but they did not even have a California-specific Advanced Health Care Directive. Additionally, this particular trust was supposed to have an A-B Trust split when the mother died, but it was clear that the lawyer who took care of this did not understand the terms and directives provided by the trust and they did not properly administer this trust and follow its instructions.
I was blown away at the level of incompetency, but relieved that we were able to advise this client on some solutions for them to move things forward properly.
I think it is important to point out that the lawyer that they went to claimed to have experience in doing this, so they trusted this attorney. This attorney had those “Best Lawyer” or “Super Lawyer” designations that you sometimes see on websites. Those items, much like the Better Business Bureau (“BBB”) badges that you may see on business websites, are typically non-accredited designations and memberships that are either paid for, voted on (by friends, family, colleagues and perhaps some clients), and/or accolades you can apply for.
Unlike these types of claims, the California State Bar is one of only 9 states that offers a state-sponsored legal certification to specialize in the area of Estate Planning. Further, less than 1% of the more than 189,000 active attorneys in California have been certified in the area of Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law. This requires attorneys with at least 5 years of experience in the area of estate planning to go through additional courses and take a specific exam in the area of estate planning in order to be certified by the State Bar. Kevin Von Tungeln, principal attorney at Thompson Von Tungeln, is a California State Bar Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law and he oversees the associate attorneys (who are also seeking to get certified in the near future!).
In addition to this level of expertise, Kevin has over 30 years of experience. Andrew Ward has more than 18 years of experience. I have over 25 years of legal experience in the United States and Asia. And, of course, Mark Thompson, who is now retired, had over 40 years of experience that he imparted to those that work here and continues to focus on the area of estate planning.
All of this to say that experience and expertise DO COUNT when it comes to getting properly drafted and maintained estate planning. Just like I would hope you would not go out and find the cheapest heart or brain surgeon to perform a surgery on you or someone you cared about, I hope that you will also not seek out the cheapest estate plan because these cheap trusts are often worse than not having one at all!
Whether you've got a cheap plan that may need a review by experts or you have been considering getting your estate plan done, simply contact our office or attend one of our upcoming free informational seminars and let us help you and your loved ones get the peace of mind in knowing that you have a Living Trust that will actually work!